David Crystal

Image Source – Humanity Hallows

David Crystal

David Crystal’s writings on language are remarkable in their volume, scope, and above all accessibility. You’ll find his titles in most high-street bookshops and you don’t need a degree in linguistics to understand them, he makes the most complex of subjects refreshingly readable. Most recently Crystal has been involved in the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare – a groundbreaking project that is putting Shakespeare’s work on as it was originally pronounced in the 16th century.

In a career spanning 50 years, he has written over 120 books on a wide variety of topics from the language of texting to speech pathology and from books for children to dictionaries and encyclopaedias Born in Northern Ireland in 1941, he studied English at UCL in London and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In the first in a series of articles on those who have influenced Pronunciation Studio’s teachers, we asked him a few questions:

1. Your work is very accessible to those who are not linguists, is this an aspect of your writing that comes naturally or does it take a lot of work to make it so readable?

A difficult question. I suppose I must have some sort of instinct for it, but it does need a lot of work. Anything you’ve seen of mine I’ve read through and revised, I dunno, at least a hundred times. In the interim I get it read by someone representing my intended audience. Hilary (my wife) has always performed sterling service here. When I wrote A Little Book of Language, aimed at young teenagers, I had it read by a 12-year-old – my savagest critic ever! A linguistic background helps enormously (especially in stylistics), as it sensitises me, as a writer, to points of potential reader difficulty. It’s much easier to write in an accessible way if you know what points (of grammar, etc) make stuff inaccessible.

2.  In a nutshell – why don’t we just write English in IPA?

You mean for everyday purposes? It would mean that every variation in accent would appear differently, and there would no longer be a standard writing system. With English now a global language, and innumerable accents around the world, it would be a recipe for chaos – a return to the days when accent differences were reflected in spelling (in the early Middle Ages). That’s why standard written English evolved in the first place, after all – to foster mutual intelligibility among people who spoke in different ways. Using IPA (or any spelling reform that was phonetic in character) would also mean that we’d lose some of the visual morphological relationships between words that actually make the language easier to learn, such as telegraph, telegraphy, telegraphic, or the endings of cats, dogs, and horses, or walked, rolled, and wanted, which would all look different in IPA.

3. How accurate is the original pronunciation of Shakespeare & are there any uncertainties about the sounds and intonation that were used?

We’ll never know anything about the intonation, as commentators at the time had nothing to say about it. On the other hand, it’s clear from later studies (such as Joshua Steele’s Melody and Measure of Speech in the 18th century) and from the first audio recordings in the late 19th century, that intonation hasn’t changed much over a long time, so it’s likely that our use of modern intonation, when reading Shakespeare, won’t be too far from how it was in 1600. We are on stronger ground when dealing with segmental phonology, as 16th and 17thy century orthoepists had a lot to say about it, and their evidence, along with the spellings, rhymes, and puns, combine to make it possible, I think, to reconstruct the Early Modern English of Shakespeare’s day with around 90 percent plausibility. There were of course usage variations in pronunciation then just as there are now, and lots of regional variation, and any historical phonologist is always ‘taking a view’ about the likelihood of a word being pronounced one way rather than another. Some parts of the sound system are much easier to work with than others. But, in the end, the result is a reconstruction which is phonologically principled and, in the mouths of actors, phonetically appealing, judging by the enthusiastic reception OP performances have received. I have a dictionary of OP coming out in 2016 (for OUP) in which I present all the evidence and identify all the options.

4. Are you in favour of the current trend to change the English teaching standard to ‘General British’ instead of RP & do you think it will catch on?

I certainly am, and I hope it will. The terminological parallel is of course General American. The trouble with the term RP is that it has accreted hostile reactions because of its long-standing association with the English elite. It’s thought of as ‘posh’, and reflects the way the upper-classes spoke half a century ago. This kind of speech isn’t the norm today. English pronunciation for the majority of educated people has changed a lot in the past fifty years and it’s good to see that change reflected in a new label. The older variety is of course still used by some, and is recognised in the new nomenclature under the name of Conspicuous GB).

5. Which aspect of linguistics are you most often asked about by the media?

Nobody ever asks about linguistics, or hardly ever. But there are many questions about language. In the past decade, I’ve had more questions about electronically mediated communication than any other topic. About text-messaging and Twitter, especially. As yet, pronunciation hasn’t figured largely in the discussions, but this will change as the Internet becomes more audio-visual.


David Crystal has written over a hundred books, we recommend  ‘Spell it Out – The Singular Story of English Spelling’ for all those interested in how English has developed into its modern day form, and his autobiography ‘Just a Phrase I’m Going Through’ - the audio book of which is highly recommended and read by the author. 

American vs British Pronunciation


General American vs General British – 5 Key Differences

It’s a choice every learner has to make at some point – which model of English pronunciation should I learn? For most, that means a choice between General American or General British, so in this month’s accent article, we look at 5 key differences between the two. The audio to accompany each point contains firstly a General American pronunciation of the words, followed by the same in General British.

1. /r/ – silent or pronounced?

work far pour

In General American, every written < r > is pronounced, whereas in General British, < r > is only pronounced before a vowel sound – it is silent before consonant sounds. This is known as rhoticity – General American is ‘rhotic’ and General British is ‘non-rhotic’.

2. /t/ – tap or plosive?

‘water’ ‘party’ ‘What are you doing?’

When the sound /t/ appears before a weak vowel, in General American it can be pronounced with a voiced tap /ɾ/ – this sounds a bit like a very fast /d/, in General British it will be a voiceless plosive /t/ with some aspiration.

3. /ɒ/ – rounded or un-rounded?

‘stop’ ‘watch’ ‘lot’

In General British, we round the lips with back open vowel in ‘got’ ‘what’ ‘shop’ whereas in Genreal American this is unrounded /ɑ/.

4. Upspeak – statement or question?

“I’m going ˈout later.” “I really want a new ˈjob.”

In General British, speakers tend to use a falling tone to indicate a new statement or utterance. In American, however, it is common to use a rising tone, which to British ears may sound more like a question. It is known as ‘upspeak’, which technically means a high rising tone. NOTE – this type of intonation is becoming more common in British English, although there are reports that some institutions actively discourage its use.

5. j – pronounced or silent?

tuna’, ‘news’, ‘due’

In General British, speakers would pronounce a /j/ before the vowel sound in ‘tune’ and ‘new’ – words where a /t/, /d/ or /n/ are followed by /u:/. In General American, this /j/ is dropped, a concept known as yod-dropping.

5 Tips To Improve Your Pronunciation


5 Top Tips to Improve your English Pronunciation.

At Pronunciation Studio we have seen thousands of students with the same aim – improve their clarity and control in English pronunciation. But which students make the most progress? Here we have compiled the top 5 tips that work:

1. Use a Mirror

Good pronunciation is about moving your articulators (lips, tongue & jaw) correctly. It is hugely beneficial to watch yourself doing this so that your awareness improves. Your lips will round when you say ‘chip’, your teeth will move off your lip when you say ‘right’, and of course your tongue may appear when you say ‘teeth’!

 2. Record & Listen to Yourself

‘When I practice at home, how do I know I am doing it correctly?’ is one of the most common questions we hear in class. The answer is that developing your ear to recognise your mistakes is one of the key skills you need to acquire – the best way to do that is to record yourself – compare it to the original recording – how is it different?

3. Slow Down!

The best way to speak clearly is not to speak fast. You can speak English fast when you have mastered weak forms, joining and using tone units, but before using these skills correctly, speaking fast will simply make it harder for people to understand you. Slow down and choose the words you want to stress, it will make a world of difference for the listener.

4. Practise Little, Often & Everywhere.

Unlike learning grammar or vocabulary where there is a right and wrong answer, pronunciation is a physical skill and it will gradually get better as your mouth improves its strength and your ear improves accuracy so the best approach is to practice regularly in small chunks – 10 to 30 minutes every day is ideal. Practise at home, on the train, in the park – don’t worry if people think you’re crazy, the reward is worth it!

5. Love IPA

One thing that unites all of the students who reach a really high level of control over their pronunciation is that they learnt to use IPA and then applied it. English has 45 sounds (depending on the origin of the speaker) but only 26 letters to represent them. This causes huge problems in the relationship between spelling and sound – IPA is the best way to solve this for learners. Use the love IPA blog to help you make friends with phonemics!

Share your tips!

Please send any tips that have helped you to improve your pronunciation to enquiries@pronunciationlondon.co.uk – we will publish any good ones and give a free online class to any we publish.


Embarrassing Pronunciation Errors


Some of the most common English pronunciation mistakes are also the most embarrassing.

Today’s blog looks at those areas of speech where a simple error can cause the listener to break into laughter……

1. ‘sheets’

Example: “Pass me those sheets.”

What’s the problem?
The /i:/ vowel in this word needs to be front close and not too long. If the vowel is too open or too central, you will not be asking your colleague for paper.

How do you avoid it?
When you make the /i:/ vowel, put your tongue as far forward as possible.

Are there any similar problems?
There are numerous examples: ‘What a lovely beach!’, ‘War and Peace’.

2. ‘can’t’

Example: “No, you can’t”

What’s the problem?
The vowel – if it’s not open enough it can sound like a very rude word indeed!
How do I avoid it?
Open your mouth, imagine you are at the dentist, really open the mouth and say /ɑ:/ – ‘can’t’ rhymes with ‘far’ and ‘park’, so imagine it is spelled with an ‘r': ‘carn’t’.

3. ‘rice’

Example: ‘I’ll have chicken & rice’.

What’s the problem?
If your first language is East Asian, you may replace the /r/ in ‘rice’ with an /l/ as in ‘lice’. You may be in for a surprise if that turns up on your plate in your local restaurant.

How do you avoid it?
Make sure your tongue does not touch the mouth when you pronounce /r/ and make sure it does touch the mouth on the alveolar ridge when you pronounce /l/.

Are there any similar problems?
Any pairs of words with r/l like ‘rake/lake’, ‘rock/lock’ etc.

4. ‘ankle’

Example: ‘I’ve hurt my ankle’

What’s the problem?
The /æ/ in ‘ankle’ needs to be front and open – many 2nd language speakers replace it with the /a/ from their language, sounding more like the /ʌ/ in ‘uncle’.

How do you avoid it?
Push your tongue forward and open your mouth fully when pronouncing /æ/, relax the mouth when pronouncing /ʌ/. You should hear a clear difference between: ‘mad/mud’, ‘cat/cut’, ‘match/much’.

Are there any similarly embarrassing examples?
‘Look at the facts!’ (silent /t/), ‘Where did I leave my bag?’

5. ‘think’

Example: ‘Wait, I’m thinking.’

What’s the problem?
The /θ/ in ‘thinking’ is made dentally, the tongue should touch the teeth. A lot of 2nd language speakers replace this sound with ‘s’, which would produce ‘sinking’. The problem is explored in this hilarious video.

How do you avoid it?
Put your tongue between your teeth for ‘th’.

Are there any similarly embarrassing examples?
Similar problem: ‘It’s very thick!’

6. ‘crab’

Example: ‘For me the crab soup.’

What’s the problem?
The voiced sound /b/ may be devoiced and become a /p/, which would be an entirely different kind of dish.

How do you avoid it?
Make sure the consonant sounds /b d g ð z ʒ v dʒ/ are voiced at the end of syllables.

Send us your examples to enquiries@pronunciationlondon.co.uk, we’ll give a free 1 hour online class for any great entries that make us laugh.


Schwa – The Key to English Pronunciation


The schwa /ə/ is the biggest key to English pronunciation a learner can possess.

Using a schwa can increase vowel accuracy by over 30%, it is the star of English speech, but most learners of English pronunciation have never heard of it and do not use it. This article aims to solve that with 4 simple questions…….


1. What is a schwa /ə/?

schwa is by far the most common vowel sound in English – RP English speakers use it about once every three vowels they pronounce. To put it another way if you don’t use the schwa sound in your speech, you are making a pronunciation error 1/3 of the time. To illustrate this, listen to and read the passage below, the schwa vowel is written in.

I’d like tə go shopping fər ə pair əf shoes, bət thə shops ə closed becəse thəs ə weathər əlert. əparrəntly lots !f snow is coming in frəm thə Highlənds so thə govərnmənt həv ədvised peopəl tə stay ət home.

2. How is a Schwa produced?

Schwa is a neutral vowel – in order to produce it your tongue should be flat and resting, your lips should be relaxed (not spread or rounded) and your jaw should be relaxed, half way open.

3. Where does Schwa appear?

The main problem is that you cannot see it on the written page – it can be spelled with ‘a’ (about), ‘e’ (father), ‘i’ (lentil), ‘o’ (polite) or ‘u’ (column), so unless students are trained to spot it, errors will occur. The key to recognising schwa is stress; schwa is only weak.

Schwa also appears in small words like ‘to’, ‘from’, & ‘are’ in connected speech, which are known as ‘function’ words in pronunciation.

4. How can I include the sound in my speech?

Like all language acquisition, you can learn the schwa in a simple 3 step process:

1. PRESENT – Learn how to say it using the correct, neutral mouth position.
2. PRACTICE – Recognise where it is in words and sentences (the script on this page is a good example) and repeat them.
3. PERFORM – Apply it to your own words and sentences.

Repeating this process will gradually incorporate the sound into your speech naturally.

Join a free Schwa class.

Free Class ii

Pronunciation Studio’s 90 minute free introduction class is all about the schwa sound, we learn how to produce it, where to find it and how to incorporate it into your speech. All delivered by an English pronunciation expert. Click here for current dates.

Alternatively download chapter 1 of ‘The Sound of English’ and learn more about the schwa with audio in there!

4 Weak Vowels – English Pronunciation


4 Weak Vowels – English Pronunciation

Anybody who has attended a pronunciation class will know what a ‘schwa’ is: the most common weak vowel of English. There are, in fact, four equally weak vowels in English and they form a very important part of accurate speech. In this paragraph for example, out of 77 vowel sounds, 40 are weak.

That means that over half the vowels we pronounce in English should be unstressed and selected from just 4 vowel sounds! Another way of looking at that is if you do not use weak vowels in your speech, you are mispronouncing at least half of your vowel sounds – proof that this is one of the most important aspects of learning English pronunciation.

In order of frequency the four weak vowels are:
ə ɪ i u

Where do they occur?

All of the weak vowels appear on weak syllables of long words and when function words are weak, examples are below:

Sound / Function Word / Content Word
ə / to / about
ɪ / in / English
i / me / lovely
u / you / particular

How are they pronounced?

Importantly, all of these vowels are mid to close jaw position, shown on the vowel grid on the right. It should also be noted that each of these vowel positions appear in strong vowels (i: / ɪ / ɜ: / u:) so to produce a weak vowel, we are not using any additional areas of the mouth.

What are common mistakes?

The most frequent error by learners of English is in placing and correctly producing the schwa (ə) vowel sound as it is by far the most frequent and unusual of the vowels. Then the difference between /ɪ/ and /i/ tends to cause a lot of problems – it is exactly the same pronunciation issue as with the famous ‘ship’ vs ‘sheep’ vowel pair. The key for learners is to produce two completely unique positions of the mouth. /u/ is rare and does not tend to cause many problems, it is only really found frequently in the function word ‘you’.

How can I master the vowels?

Firstly, recognise where they appear in words and sentences.
Secondly, master their pronunciation, /ə/ /ɪ/ and /i/ are challenging for most English learners.
Thirdly, adopt them naturally into speech, this takes lots of practice!

Weak Vowel Exercise

This activity is covered on Advanced Pronunciation (Level 2) – find all the weak vowels in the following sentences (you can listen to them below):

1. Is it going to rain in the morning? ɪ ɪ ə ɪ ə
2. Are you having a party this weekend?
3. When would it be a good time to visit?
4. Have there been any signs of a repeat?
5. Did you invite them to your wedding?
6. I’m thinking of some time off.
7. We should have been at home by now.
8. It was such a good film.
9. War and Peace will be read in the thirtieth century.
10. He would like fish and chips if it’s on the menu.

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching ‘Ship or Sheep’?


Gip or Geep?

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching /ɪ/ vs /i:/?

everybody who has studied English pronunciation has, at one point or other, bemoaned the lack of spelling to sound rules (see this collection of poems). Pairs of words with similar spelling but different pronunciation are plentiful (cough/dough, heard/beard, good/food), but increasingly from a teaching perspective, I feel these archaic elements of English spelling are exaggerated and English spelling can be very useful to the student of pronunciation. Nonsense words are a brilliant way of exploring this in class.

In last Saturday’s advanced pronunciation class we had the following conversation:

A  “Gip seagle feen spicken leaj?”
B  “Seef jick hib neep biller.”
A  “Feegen bick?”
B  “Sif gick dip heaz.”

It is clearly nonsense, but there is only one way to pronounce the vowel sounds within. This highlights the difference between the pair of vowels /ɪ/ vs /i:/. The mid-close /ɪ/ sound is almost always spelt < i > as a strong vowel, so ‘jick’, ‘hib’ and ‘gip’ must be pronounced with /ɪ/. In contrast, the close /i:/ sound is almost always spelt with two vowels < ee > or < ea >, but is never spelt with just one < i >, so ‘heaz’, ‘seef’ and ‘leaj’ are definitely going to be /i:/ even if we have never seen the words before.

This simple spelling rule can radically alter a student’s speech. Many students speak native languages where a written < i > would correspond to a close /i/ sound, so breaking the assumption that this will happen in English is a huge step to solving the ship/sheep problem that so many students struggle with.

along with the spelling rule, students need to learn the correct mouth positioning for the two vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/ as shown in this vowel grid.  For a full explanation see this earlier blog post.

Nonsense Words

Try pronouncing the nonsense words below – the pronunciation should be clear from the spelling:

gip  leab  seag  sib  chif  feek  piv  veize  vim  sheev  tib  bim

This material appears in class 2 of Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation. 

How to Join ‘th’ Sounds.


‘th’ Joining & Why it’s Important.

on Saturday I taught a class of 8 advanced speakers and pronouncers of English, they could all repeat both ‘th’ sounds with no problem (/θ/ as in ‘think’ and /ð/ as in ‘those’).  Nearly all of the students would, however, make an error when speaking normally, and the ‘th’ sounds would be mispronounced as some kind of alveolar or dental plosive. A huge number of advanced speakers make this error, but there is a simple trick to avoid it as follows.

What’s the problem?

the problem arises if one of the alveolar sounds /t, d, l, n/ appear directly before a dental sound /θ, ð/. Why? Because the tongue is out of position, it is impossible to go from the alveolar ridge to the teeth in no time, so the speaker makes their ‘th’ sound in the wrong place.

How to avoid a pronunciation error.

avoiding the error is technically very simple – you simply make the previous alveolar consonant on the teeth. To demonstrate, compare the following examples:

nine /naɪn/ ninth /naɪnθ/ – the underlined ‘n’ would be dental.
blood /blʌd/ bloodthirsty /blʌdθɜ:sti/ – the underlined ‘d’ would be dental.

This also occurs when joining words together:

in /ɪn/, in the /ɪn ðə/
did /dɪd/, dɪd they /dɪd ðeɪ/


in class on Saturday we used the following sentences and looked for at least two examples of alveolar consonants becoming dental in each sentence:

    1. Aren’t the residents unhealthy living in that pollution?
    2. It’s hard to succeed in the cutthroat world of the media.
    3. Did the internet suffer a loss of bandwidth this morning?
    4. I think they should ban the wealthiest from attending.
    5. For the thousandth time Katie, join the leads together.
    6. ‘Heartthrob’ we used to call him, although he’s lost his looks now.
    7. Well it’s true that synthetic materials were all the rage.
    8. We were happy, but then her misanthrope got in the way.
    9. Do you think that the national anthem is appropriate?
    10. What the hell are you doing drinking absinth?

You can listen to the sentences here:

‘th’ joining is covered in class 1 on Pronunciation Studio’s Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation course.

Christmas Presents


Christmas Presence by Pronunciation Studio

It’s that time of year again, and aside from the obvious jokes around the homophones ‘presents’ and ‘presence’, Pronunciation Studio have a variety of gift ideas ideal for linguistic minded souls.

All of our Christmas gifts come with a 30 day guarantee starting 25th December, so if the recipient does not want the present, whether it is a course, voucher or book, it can be returned in January for a full refund. 

Book Gift

Course Book ‘The Sound of English’ + 3CDs & Free P&P to UK – £20

Course Vouchers

All voucher gifts include ‘The Sound of English’ course book + 3CDs with free UK postage. The recipient can spend the vouchers on any Pronunciation Studio course or return them in January for a full refund.

1. £50 Course Vouchers (eg assessment)
2. £150 Course Vouchers (eg 2 day intensive)
3. £250 Course Vouchers (eg 16 hour group)
4. £525 Course Vouchers (eg 10 hour individual)
5. £640 Course Vouchers (eg full 64 hour 4 course group program)
5. £995 Course Vouchers (eg 20 hour individual)

Course Gifts

All course gifts include the course book ‘The Sound of English’ + 3CDs which can be delivered with free p&p to UK addresses, or can be given at the beginning of the course. Course prices are as listed in our winter sale for courses bought in December and starting in 2014.

Individual Courses in London

1. 60 minute individual assessment class £45.00
2. 5 Hour  Course – £265
3. 10 Hour Course – £470
4. 15 Hour Course – £690
5. 20 Hour Course – £895

Individual Courses via Skype (include ‘The Sound of English’ download if outside UK)

1. 60 minute individual assessment class £40.00
2. 5 Hour  Course – £180
3. 10 Hour Course – £340
4. 15 Hour Course – £480
5. 20 Hour Course – £600

Group Courses (include ‘The Sound of English’ + 3CDs)

If you are not sure which course to buy, this can be decided by the recipient in January.

8 week / 16 hour courses – £200 (normally £250)

12 hour weekend intensive course – £120 (normally £150)

30 hour 5 day weekday course – £240 (normally £300)

How to Purchase

All of our gifts are available to purchase by e-mail, telephone or in person at school. They can be paid in cash, by card, or online via Paypal. Please contact us stating which gift you would like to purchase and any further details required for us to deliver the present.

French Speakers’ English Pronunciation Errors


What are the main mistakes for French speakers in English pronunciation?

To coincide with our French speakers’ night at Pronunciation Studio on the 16th December, here we have highlighted the top 10 errors for French speakers in English:

1. r & silent r

French ‘r’ is a voiced uvular fricative, made at the back of the mouth, English /r/ is an alveolar approximant made near the front of the mouth – they should not be confused!

right red lorry great

French speakers tend to say all the written ‘r’s, but in British English you should nor pronounce an r if it is after a vowel:

Four thirty in the afternoon.

2. Vowel rounding

Many French centre and front vowels use rounded lips, whereas in English they would be made with neutral lips – the sound is very different:

The first thing I heard was a scream.

3. th

French does not contain dental fricatives θ or ð, speakers often replace these with /s/ and /z/:

We’ll see them on Thursday, I think.

4. h

The glottal fricative /h/ does not exist in French, it does in English:

house home holiday Harry

5. ɪ or i:?

French has just one close front vowel [i], English has two: /ɪ/ and /i:/ – /ɪ/ should be made with a slightly lower jaw, but French speakers often just use the one position for these vowels:

ship / sheep
fit / feet
rid / read

6. Word Stress

French tends to stress the last syllable of a long word, English does not:

father corruption absolutely computer

7. Intonation

French has a very unique melody – it is often flat and high with rising patterns. English is generally uses falling patterns more and has a greater difference in stress:

Where do you think we should go?
I don’t see how it is that important.

8. Open vowels /æ/ vs /ɑ:/

French contains one open vowel unrounded: [a], English contains 2: /æ/ (cat) /ɑ:/ (cart) so French often the French [a] instead:

hat heart
ham harm
had hard

9. Diphthong ‘o’

French does not use diphthong (double) vowel sounds, so they often come out a bit flat:

Don’t go to the show.

10. Affricate Consonant /dʒ/

French speakers often miss the beginning plosive sound in English affricates:

/dʒ/: James general job agent

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